The extraordinary events of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic have led to challenging and worrying times for each of us. The effects of social distancing, lockdown, and the unpredictable nature of the virus have put enormous strains on our mental health and wellbeing. For the legal sector, with all its usual stresses and strains, adapting to this period of instability has made support systems such as the Mental Health First Aider initiative essential in providing access to help for those struggling with their mental health. This measure, and others like it, are important steps towards healthier workplace cultures.
Mental health and the legal sector
A recent survey by UK insurance firm Protectivity found that lawyers are the second most stressed professionals in the country – with 63% in the legal industry reporting stress daily. This is reflected by the findings of research carried out by Dr Rebecca Michalak of the University of Queensland, who said ‘lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health wellbeing than other professionals’.
Though the tide is turning, the legal industry has faced systemic barriers which have meant it has struggled to properly address mental health in the past. Long hours and complex cases create a highly pressured environment, which is enough to negatively impact mental health on its own. Add to this a global pandemic, which brings additional challenges such as remote working and infinite video calls, and feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression can be overwhelming.
Improving mental health
Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the challenges the sector faces and an increasing desire for positive change. Legal mental health charity LawCare recently published a study assessing the impact of workplace culture and practices on employees’ wellbeing, as well as issues around mental health. The findings, which will be published later this year, will be used to improve the levels of support available to employees in the legal industry. The charity Jonathan’s Voice is making excellent progress in this area by providing support to individuals and engaging with organisations to help reduce the stigma around mental health in the legal sector.
However, there is still a long way to go. Each law firm can play its part in supporting staff through schemes such as the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) initiative. The initiative is a simple way to create a more supportive and open workspace for employees, where talking about mental health is encouraged and is a part of the daily environment.
The ‘MHFA’ training course covers various aspects of mental illness from addiction, depression, and suicide, to eating disorders, personality disorders, and psychosis. The training provides legal First Aiders with the knowledge and skills to act as a first port-of-call for any colleagues experiencing difficulties with their mental health, to address their immediate needs, and to direct them to further support where needed. MHFAs also provide a confidential ear for the day-to-day issues faced by those around them.
The initiative has really helped encourage open discussion at EIP, the London-based IP law firm where I am a MHFA. This, in turn, is helping to break down any stigma surrounding the subject. The MHFA team have set up a number of events, such as our ‘Time to Talk’ day, where we asked people to write down ways to maintain a healthy mind and discussed these in further detail at a lunch time session. It was instantly successful in stimulating discussions around mental health and in making people feel more comfortable opening up to their colleagues.
Overall, we must continue to use the momentum of 2020 to talk more about mental health. The MHFA scheme has been valuable in creating a positive working environment and should be encouraged across the legal sector. Initiatives such as these can help turn the tide on mental health, reducing stigma and ultimately empowering people to confront the issues affecting them. Physical first aiders are indispensable in bridging the gap to professional medical care; it seems only natural to extend the courtesy to our mental health.
Tom Goodfellow is an associate at EIP